As good as gold

Pioneer finds fortune in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2003

In 1939, 18-year-old Morris Porter left his home in Oregon's Willamette Valley and, in search of a fortune in gold, hopped a ship bound for Alaska.

Sixty-four years later, "Morrie" Porter has yet to find any gold. But he hasn't given up on the Alaska dream, either.

"I'd just graduated high school and came to Alaska to dig for some of that gold," Porter said in an interview from his North Kenai home last week. "The idea was to come up here and work for minimum wage and learn the ropes. I promised my folks I'd come back in a year. ... I never did."

Instead, Porter found a job washing dishes in an Anchorage restaurant. His chores included getting up at 5 a.m. to light the stove for the cook.

"He had to have it just right when he came in," he said.

After a winter of early mornings, Porter decided it was time to leave the city behind and find his gold. After paying off his boat ticket north, he hopped a train to the Interior, where he found work at the Golden Zone mine, located in present-day Denali National Park.

But instead of working a claim, Porter again found himself in the kitchen, cooking meals and cleaning up after the burly Scandinavian miners. He remembers his most important job being to make sure the miners got candy with their coffee.

"They had a particular candy they all had to have," he said. "They didn't use sugar, just put the candy under their tongue."

It didn't take long for Porter to realize he wouldn't find his fortune giving candy to picky miners. He left the gold mine and returned to Anchorage, where his fortunes began to change.

In Anchorage, Porter found an Alaska-born girl, Bertha Van Zanten, and the two began a grocery business. Around that same time, he began fishing in Cook Inlet, supplying the U.S. Army with as much as 5,000 pounds of seafood each week. Also around that time, Morris and Bertha began what would grow to become an extremely large, close-knit family.

That family would grow to eventually include nine children, something Morris said he planned from the start.

"When I and Bertha got married, we discussed this. I always thought the happiest families are the biggest," he said. "I said I wanted a lot of children, and she agreed to it."

After the war, the Porters decided Anchorage was getting a little too crowded for their tastes, so they sold the store, packed up their two children and moved to Kachemak Bay. On the way out of town, Morris made what would become the first of several lucrative real estate deals.

He had five acres of land on Spenard Lake that "you couldn't give away." After moving to Kachemak Bay, Porter found a partner who eventually sold the land and netted Porter $15,000 profit.

"I've done well in real estate," he said.

Morris and Bertha searched up and down Kachemak Bay before settling near Seldovia. There, they found their ideal location, an 83-acre parcel of land that was going to auction. After submitting the only bid, the Porters found their first home on the Kenai Peninsula.

Called "Sunshine Point," the land became the Porters' base of operations for several years. It was an idyllic spot, perfect for fishing and trading, and the Porters quickly built a home there.

But although great for fishing, Sunshine Point wasn't exactly the best place to raise a growing family. After enduring a winter that saw three of their children come down with scarlet fever, the family decided to move a little closer to civilization.

They returned to Anchorage, but quickly found city life undesirable. Along with a friend, Chuck Brady, Morris decided he'd be better off in Kenai, a growing town in need of basic services. The two men purchased three cars, shipped them to Kenai and started the town's first taxi service.

With a healthy number of stores and bars, Kenai proved to be a good place for a taxi service. But there was one problem.

"Now the cabs are down here," Porter said. "But how do you call 'em?"

Running from bar to bar to find passengers wasn't working. The cab company needed to find a better way of drumming up business, so Porter and Brady decided the next logical step would be to get telephone service into the bars and businesses. That way, people could call a cab, instead of having to stumble into one.

They rigged up a system of Army field phones in several places around town. The phones were the only ones in town, and they quickly became popular not only for cab rides, but for chit chat, as well. As the need for phone service grew, Porter said he decided to ditch the taxi idea all together.

"After a while, I didn't like the cab business. So we made a deal. I took the telephone company and one car. He took the cab business and the other two," Porter said.

He expanded telephone service in the area, stringing lines along power poles and purchasing surplus equipment. But it seemed as fast as he could upgrade phone service, the demand and competition grew even faster.

"Kenai was really starting to grow," he said. "I sold it because it was going to be taken over anyway."

Throughout his time in the taxi and phone business, Porter continued to spend his summers on the water. He and his family built a homestead on the bluff overlooking the inlet, where Porter spent much of his time fishing. He said he considers himself a fisher first, and to this day continues to go out each summer, even though prices aren't what they used to be.

"There's no money in it, but I've got all the equipment," he said. "It's what I do."

Porter said he's unhappy with the fact it's tough to make a living fishing these days, but that the commercial fishing industry gave him his first steady income, and provided well for his family throughout the years.

"It's been managed to death," he said. "But fishing don't owe me a nickel."

Although he doesn't do as much of the work on the boat these days, Porter said he still enjoys heading out on the water, where he lets his children and grandchildren handle the bulk of the heavy labor. He is responsible for putting his 60-plus years of experience in the inlet to work.

"I tell them where to set and when to set (the nets)," he said.

There is still one job he does himself, though.

"I do keep the deck clean."

You would expect after six decades on the inlet, Porter would have had a couple close calls on the high seas. And he has, including a time when he found himself stuck in a small cove on anchor, but in 100 knot winds. In the middle of the night, after enduring a persistent Southwest wind, Porter said he suddenly found the boat swinging around.

"I thought the anchor had let go," he said.

However, the anchor held. The wind had simply shifted, making it feel like the anchor had come loose.

"I had just put on a new anchor line, which I was thankful for," he said.

"I'll tell you the secret to making an anchor stick. When you anchor, put a weight about 20-30 feet from the anchor. It keeps the line down and it makes a lot of difference."

Porter said he's learned a lot of similar lessons on the high seas, including one that nearly cost him his life.

He was set to go out fishing one day, but his deckhand never showed up. Although he said he doesn't believe in going out alone, he needed to fish that day, and decided to take the risk.

"I needed to fish, so I went alone. I didn't belong in that boat, but what do you do?" he asked.

Things were going fin for Porter, and it looked like he'd get a decent haul of fish from his first set. But when he started to reel in his net, things turned ugly. His rain slicker got tangled in the reel, and he began to get pulled into the relentless spool.

"You kick 'em in gear, they're in gear," he said of the reel.

Without an extra hand to help him get free, Porter found himself struggling in vain against the heavy reel. He tried to get to his knife, but couldn't reach it. His only choice was to struggle to resist the pull of the reel, hoping he could burn through the reel's V-belt before the reel got him. It worked.

"I finally got it where it was burning the belts. That's the only thing that saved me," he said.

After that experience, Porter said he stopped breaking his own rules about being on the water.

"I don't do that anymore," he said.

Fortunately for him, most of the eight surviving Porter children continue to live in the area. That means he's got plenty of help, as well as lots of company at family gatherings.

"I pity anyone that's married and don't have children. People that don't have children miss a whole lot in life," he said.

The family continues to get together regularly, and when they do, Porter said the clan makes up "a pretty good crowd."

As his family and the surrounding area grew up, Porter continued to fish, as well as invest in a number of business ventures and real estate opportunities all of which have worked out well.

"All the businesses I've been in, I've never gone broke," he said.

In addition to a number of fortunate land sales, Porter said he once sold a car dealership to a young Ted Stevens before Stevens became a U.S. senator.

Chasing the Alaska dream hasn't been all fun and adventure for Porter. Along the way, he's had to bury a son, as well as his beloved wife, Bertha, who died 17 years ago.

But Porter, who seems to have been able to find opportunities at nearly every turn, even found happiness in the wake of his wife's passing.

As it happened, another long-time North Kenai fisher and friend of the Porters', Robert Walker, died within one month of Bertha. The two families knew each other well from fishing Cook Inlet, and it was only a matter of time before Morris and the widowed Mrs. Doris Walker found a kinship.

Having known each other since the homestead days, Doris said it was natural that the two would marry. They now share a house on Doris' homestead overlooking Cook Inlet, a place that holds countless old stories for both of them. Doris said it's fitting that the two were able to build a new life with each other, since both have spent their lives living much of the history of the Kenai Peninsula.

"We're both old-timers," she said.

Now 83 years old, Morris Porter is no longer the fresh-faced youngster who first came to Alaska in 1939. In his long life, he's found just about everything he ever came looking for except gold, of course but he's not content to sit back and rest on his accomplishments.

After all, he's still got a lot of real estate to look after, including a scenic 83 acres of former auction-block land across Kachemak Bay called Sunshine Point. Once a rugged, unwanted corner of the peninsula, a place where Morris and his family struggled to carve out a life, Porter's former home near Seldovia has grown into a relaxing vacation destination.

"I own too much real estate, I think," he said. "But I don't want to sell Sunshine Point. We're going back there this weekend."

When he left Oregon, Morris Porter said he was searching for treasure. Sixty-four years later, it looks like he's found it.

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